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Breaking News:

Split Senate Panel Approves Giving Obama Limited Authority on Syria


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Split Senate Panel Approves Giving Obama Limited Authority on Syria

Posted on 21 Oct 2013 by "the witness"


Published: September 4, 2013


Rebels with the Free Syrian Army wore gas masks on Wednesday inside a house during an offensive against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in northern Syria.

Ammar Abdullah/Reuters

WASHINGTON — A sharply divided Senate committee voted Wednesday to give President Obama limited authority to use force against Syria, the first step in what remains a treacherous path for Mr. Obama to win Congressional approval for a military attack.


Protesters at a hearing with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry.

Doug Mills/The New York Times

The resolution would limit strikes against Syrian forces to a period of 60 days, with the possibility of 30 more days after consultation with Congress, and it would block the use of American ground troops.

The vote of 10 to 7 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee laid bare the complicated political crosscurrents raised by military intervention in Syria. Two liberal Democrats voted against the resolution, one voted present and three Republicans voted for it. The Senate panel’s action capped a day of fierce debate in both houses of Congress that indicated there is a widespread impulse to respond to the deadly chemical weapons attack but deep divisions over how much latitude the president should have to do so.

The White House welcomed the vote, declaring, “America is stronger when the president and Congress work together.” But administration officials said that while they expected the full Senate to vote next week, after Congress returns from recess, they did not think the House would act until the week after and were girding for a prolonged debate.

As the Senate committee hashed out its resolution, under the shadow of a potential filibuster, members of Mr. Obama’s cabinet pressed their case for action before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, drawing sharp criticism from Republicans, and raising doubts among Democrats, over the wisdom of getting drawn into a messy sectarian conflict.

However fractious the arguments, the lawmakers clearly responded to the challenge that Mr. Obama handed them earlier in the day, when he declared that authorizing a military strike was not a test for him but for Congress and the international community.

“I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference in Stockholm on the first day of a three-day visit to Sweden and Russia, where he will take part in a summit meeting that is likely to be dominated by the war in Syria.

“My credibility’s not on the line,” he said, appealing to lawmakers and foreign leaders to back his plan to retaliate against President Bashar al-Assad. “The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’s credibility is on the line.”

Still, the Senate vote was hardly resounding. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, co-author of the resolution and the ranking Republican on the committee, was one of the Republicans who sided with Mr. Obama. Another was Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a freshman who voted with his state’s senior senator, John McCain, an ardent proponent of robust intervention.

The three Democrats who did not support the resolution served as a warning to White House aides still searching for support in the House. Senators Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut and Tom Udall of New Mexico are newcomers who reflect the sentiment of the House Democratic ranks they recently left. Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the Senate’s newest member and a longtime denizen of the House, voted present, saying he was still haunted by his vote to authorize war in Iraq.

“In the days to come, I will further examine the classified intelligence information and consult with experts before deciding how I will vote on the final resolution when it is considered on the Senate floor,” Mr. Markey said in a statement.

The panel had struggled in drafting the resolution, with the committee’s leaders pressing to limit the duration and nature of military strikes, while Mr. McCain demanded more — not less — latitude for the military to inflict damage on Mr. Assad’s forces. To assure the support of Mr. McCain, who is viewed as crucial to the authorization’s final passage, the committee toughened some of the language.

Noting that “it is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria,” it urged a “comprehensive strategy” to improve the fighting abilities of the Syrian opposition.

The panel set aside a resolution by Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican leading the opposition to the strikes, which would have declared that the president has the authority to act unilaterally only when the nation faces attack. Democratic and Republican Senate leaders agreed on Wednesday night to gavel in a brief session on Friday to put the war resolution on the Senate’s calendar so the clock can begin counting down to a final vote toward the end of next week.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Paul said the senator was considering parliamentary maneuvers to ensure that final passage of the resolution would require a vote of 60 senators, but she said no decision had been made about how to do that. If the Senate does authorize military action, it will have to reconcile its authorization with whatever resolution emerges from the House. A resolution being circulated by two Democrats, Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Representative Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia, would impose even tighter limits on Mr. Obama, authorizing only a single round of missile strikes, unless there is another chemical weapons attack.

For the second day in a row, divisions over what do in Syria played out at a combative hearing in which Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, argued the Obama administration’s case.

Appearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr. Kerry offered a new argument: extremist groups fighting against the Syrian government would become stronger if the United States did not carry out a military strike.

Mr. Kerry said the United States had worked hard in recent months to persuade Arab nations and benefactors not to finance or arm the more extremist rebels who are battling Mr. Assad’s forces. But if the United States does not punish the Assad government, Mr. Kerry said, it is likely that some Arab supporters of the Syrian opposition will provide arms and financing to the best rebel fighters, regardless of whether they are extremists. “We will have created more extremism and a greater problem down the road,” Mr. Kerry said.

After days of discussion over whether a limited military strike would be effective, administration officials sought to assure anxious lawmakers that it would not provoke a major escalation in the fighting.

Representative Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican, asked if a missile attack might set off a chain reaction that could lead to a military action as prolonged as the 78 days of NATO bombing in Kosovo. “How do you define limited and short duration?” he asked. “And what might Assad do in retaliation?”

General Dempsey acknowledged that was a risk but argued that the danger had been mitigated since the United States had signaled that it was planning a limited strike, even as it retained the ability to carry out additional attacks if Mr. Assad responded in a provocative manner. “We’re postured for the possibility of retaliation,” he said.

The most heated moment in the hearing came when Representative Jeff Duncan, a South Carolina Republican, accused Mr. Kerry of taking a hawkish stand on Syria while ignoring the terrorist attack on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya.


Obama Seeks Support on Syria

“Mr. Kerry, you have never been one that has advocated for anything other than caution when involving U.S. force in past conflicts,” Mr. Duncan said. “Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating that you would abandon past caution in favor for pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?”

His voice rising with anger, Mr. Kerry responded that as a senator, he had supported “military action in any number of occasions,” citing the invasions of Panama and Grenada. Mr. Kerry also voted in favor of President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, before turning against the war.

“We’re talking about people being killed by gas, and you want to go talk about Benghazi,” Mr. Kerry said.

In an indication of the hostility that Russia has shown to any American military action, President Vladimir V. Putin accused Mr. Kerry of lying to Congress.

“They’re lying; it’s ugly,” Mr. Putin said in remarks that were televised in Russia. “I saw the debates in Congress. A congressman asks Mr. Kerry, ‘Is Al Qaeda there? They say they are getting stronger.’ He says, ‘No, I am telling you, responsibly, they are not there.’

“The main rebel group is Al Nusra — that’s how they are called. This is a unit of Al Qaeda.They know about this,” Mr. Putin continued. “It was very unpleasant and surprising to me. You know, we communicate with them assuming they are decent people. Well, straight out, he’s lying. And he knows he is lying. It’s sad.”

Peter Baker contributed reporting from Stockholm, and David M. Herszenhorn from Moscow.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: September 6, 2013

Because of transcription errors, an article on Thursday about a vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee giving President Obama limited authorization to use military force against Syria mistranslated part of a televised response by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to testimony in support of a strike before a House committee. Referring to the testimony, by Secretary of State John Kerry and other American officials, Mr. Putin said, “They’re lying; it’s ugly,” not “They lie beautifully, of course.” Referring to the Syrian rebels, he said: “The main rebel group is Al Nusra — that’s how they are called. This is a unit of Al Qaeda,” not “Al Qaeda units are the main military echelon.”

 A version of this article appears in print on September 5, 2013, on page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: Split Senate Panel Approves Giving Obama Limited Authority on Syria.

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